Margaret Walker, poet and novelist (obituary, December 1998)

By Maida Odom

Poet, novelist and essayist Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander, 83, whose works about African Americans bridged the gap between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s and the black arts movement of the 1960s, died Monday at her daughter's home in Chicago. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Miss Walker, who was published under her maiden name, was best known for her poem "For My People," published in 1942, and her best-selling novel, Jubilee, based on her family's experiences during slavery and immediately after the Civil War, published in 1966.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Miss Walker was a resident of Jackson, Miss., and was a professor emeritus at Jackson State College, where she taught English and served as director of the Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black Peoples.

Miss Walker, who began her writing career in the 1930s, still was writing in the 1990s. Her last book of essays, On Being Female, Black and Free: Essays, 1932-1992, was published in 1997. This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems was published in 1989.

The poet Sonia Sanchez, codirector of Temple University's women's studies program, described Miss Walker as "a woman of ideas, a first-rate philosopher and thinker. She was one of the writers who celebrated black people much in the tradition of [ poets ] Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown."

Sanchez, a friend of Miss Walker who visited the writer last week, said she was a lyrical and an epic poet.

"She has fulfilled many roles," Sanchez said in an interview yesterday. "She gave us a large range of different poetic forms. She dealt with the sonnet, superstition, a lot of the African American folk sermons, and she was able to elevate it to great heights."

Her World War II-era poem "For My People," which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs repeatedly: their
dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees, praying their
prayers nightly to an unknown god, bending their knees humbly
to an unseen power;

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the gone years
and the now years and the maybe years, washing ironing cooking
scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting
pruning patching dragging along never gaining never reaping
never knowing and never understanding;

It closes:
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way from
confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to
fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the
adams and eves and their countless generations;

Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be
written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue
forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty
full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in
our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let
the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.

"For My People" was the title poem in a volume that served as her master's thesis for the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa; she returned there and completed her Ph.D. in 1965.

Miss Walker received her undergraduate education at Northwestern University, graduating in 1935. She was a member of the Works Progress Administration, and was associated with an important group of artists and writers who formed the Southside Writers Group, led by her close friend Richard Wright.

In 1943, she married Firnist James Alexander, who preceded her in death, and they had four children.

Although Miss Walker was the daughter of a college professor, she was raised in the Jim Crow South. In an interview in the 1940s, she said: "Before I was 10, I knew what it was to step off the sidewalk to let a white man pass; otherwise he might knock me off. . . . My father was chased home one night at the point of a gun by a drunken policeman who resented a fountain pen in 'a [ black man's ] pocket.' My grandmother told the story of a woman tarred and feathered in the neigh borhood."

Jubilee was the story of Miss Walker's great-grandmother Elvira Dozier Ware. The daughter of a white slave master and an enslaved woman of African descent, the protagonist, called Vyry, short for Elvira, maintains her own set of values during horrific times, choosing to remain in slavery at one point rather than run away and leave her children. The book offers a window on slavery from the vantage point of enslaved people, sharing tales of both absurdity and brutality, such as a celebration at a public hanging of a black man held on the Fourth of July.

In 1988, Miss Walker unsuccessfully sued Alex Haley, alleging that his book Roots infringed on her copyright for Jubilee.

Historian Charles Blockson of Philadelphia described Jubilee as a deeply researched book, and called Miss Walker a "brilliant and pathbreaking author."


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